What is knowledge?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: June 2020
Some lesser distinctions
Before we proceed, there are still a few practical and conceptual issues that are good to pay attention to. They are not specific to Indian or integral psychology, but they are good to keep in mind as they tend to create confusion when one is not sufficiently aware of them.
The purpose of knowing: why do we actually need to know?
From a practical standpoint, the first and perhaps most important distinction to make is why we actually need or want to know. In humans, knowledge exists only very rarely just for its own sake. It is almost always embedded in an "attitude" and in service of life and some plan or program for action. There is a great difference between the knowledge of the academic, manager, prosecutor, police detective, defence lawyer, entertainer, engineer, gardener, doctor, therapist, artist, mother, lover, .... All of them know something special about their subject, but what they want to do with their knowledge changes its character.
From a theoretical standpoint, it is good to realise that underlying the four types of knowledge there are three, closely related gradients.
- The first is the gradient from pure spirit, via mind, to gross matter.
- The second is the gradient from our own inmost essence to the surface aspects of the outer world.
- The third is the gradient from knowledge which comes directly, spontaneously, simply because it is, to knowledge which is constructed with difficulty out of diverse elements.
We had look at the first gradient in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness which is part of the Introduction and we will have a look at the other two in following chapters [INTERNAL LINKS].
Is all knowledge representational?
Of these four modes of knowing, only the last two are representational and intentional in the sense of being ‘about something’. To realize that there are types of knowledge that are not representational, one need not rise to any extraordinary state of samādhi or to some otherwise non-egoic consciousness. Even in perfectly ordinary states, when we feel happy to be alive, when we love the world, or just one special person in it, we know the state we are in, but the knowledge of this state is not representative, it is a knowledge embedded in our very being. We can subsequently take distance from that direct experience, look at it introspectively, and then describe what we then see in a third person, ‘objective’ format — the result is then representative knowledge of the introspective type, which is indeed intentional — but the original knowledge was not about something at all, it was simply itself.
Degrees of consciousness and distinct territories within the subliminal
On a more down-to-earth level, there are the distinctions within the subconscious or subliminal. By itself, "subliminal" simply means "below the threshold", but in Infinity in a Drop we will use the term more specifically for that part of human nature that "most people most of the time" are not aware of. This is of course rather vague, and neither the content nor the borders of the subliminal can be measured with any degree of precision. If we could measure it accurately, it would offer an interesting perspective on the level of awareness in different populations, which in turn would allow us to monitor how our collective awareness changes over time. But for now this is not feasible, and we will have to accept a rather loose meaning for the term. Keeping that in mind, one could say that it is one of the aspirations of Infinity in a Drop, to help people make as much of the subliminal conscious as possible.
Things can be subliminal in different ways and for different reasons.
The preconscious consists of stuff that we are not aware of but that can enter into our awareness if we want. If human nature was a company, the preconscious would contain everything that is happening in a company of which the CEO is not immediately aware, but that he could, in principle, find out about by asking some member of his staff. Freud used the term in this sense and thought that everything in the preconscious could in principle be made conscious.
The word subconscious is used in two different ways. Sometimes it is used in a general sense as a synonym for "subliminal", that is, for everything in our nature that we are not aware of. At other times, it is used for a specific nether sub-region of the subliminal which is very close to the absolute nescient from which everything has arisen during the evolution. In this second sense it is also the region where we try to hide everything which we do not want to acknowledge in ourselves. In this last sense it has an overlap with what Freud called the "unconscious".
The superconscious contains everything that is too subtle, high or intense for the ordinary nature to handle. Sri Aurobindo uses the term again with two different meanings, simply for any consciousness which is above our ordinary waking consciousness and, more specifically, for that type of consciousness which is divine and entirely beyond dualities. Jung appears to have had some experience with the first kind of material. Freud seems to have been entirely unaware of its existence.
Most of the inner, subliminal being is however neither above nor below our waking consciousness but rather deeper and as such in possession of the beauty and intensity of the inner life. Sri Aurobindo writes:
The subliminal self has ... the same capacities as our waking being, a subtle sense and perception, a comprehensive extended memory and an intensive selecting intelligence, will, self-consciousness; but even though the same in kind, they are wider, more developed, more sovereign. And it has other capacities which exceed those of our mortal mind because of a power of direct awareness of the being, whether acting in itself or turned upon its object, which arrives more swiftly at knowledge, more swiftly at effectivity of will, more deeply at understanding and satisfaction of impulse. Our surface mind is hardly a true mentality, so involved, bound, hampered, conditioned is it by the body and bodily life and the limitations of the nerve-system and the physical organs. But the subliminal self has a true mentality superior to these limitations; it exceeds the physical mind and physical organs although it is aware of them and their works and is, indeed, in a large degree their cause or creator. It is only subconscious in the sense of not bringing all or most of itself to the surface, it works always behind the veil: it is rather a secret intraconscient and circumconscient than a subconscient; for it envelops quite as much as it supports the outer nature. This description is no doubt truest of the deeper parts of the subliminal; in other layers of it nearer to our surface there is a more ignorant action and those who, penetrating within, pause in the zones of lesser coherence or in the No-man’s-land between the subliminal and the surface, may fall into much delusion and confusion...
LD pp. 580
Stages of knowing
Knowing, especially of important, potentially life-changing things, is only rarely a simple yes/no phenomenon. Much more commonly the new idea arises slowly, from a state where there is not the slightest idea or sense of the possibility, to a complete transformation of one's entire existence under its influence. One can distinguish four stages.
The first stage can take two entirely different forms, depending on whether the first contact comes from inside or outside. If it arises from inside, it is called faith, a kind of fore-knowledge in the soul which knows there is something, but often vaguely and without knowing exactly how or why. If the first contact comes from outside, the first contact is in the form of information, a bit of factual content without much weight or import. If such information arrives when the faith is already there, it can help to give the faith a more concrete form, so that it becomes more tangible and effective.
The second stage involves a first concrete, personal experience. Such experiences go way beyond the hope or the simple intellectual information, but, still, experiences are fleeting, they fade and don't bring about a fundamental change.
This is different for the third stage, the stage of realisation, which involves a fundamental change in terms of who one is in one's essence.
What happens in the final stage depends again, as in the first stage, on whether we are dealing with something close to the surface or with a deep inner change. If the whole thing is about some relatively superficial know-how or a mental skill, this stage is called the stage of integration and utilisation, in which one connects the new knowledge to everything else one already knows, and learns how to use it. If it is about something deeper, it involves a complete change of one's nature.
If one would compare one's being to a company, stage one would be a vague sense of the need for change. Stage two might involve calling in a consultant, or collecting concrete ideas on how to change. Stage three would be the appointment of a new CEO. Stage four would be the actual transition period during which, gradually, over time, all the employees begin to function in line with the new corporate identity.
These stages are, however, most significant for a deep spiritual change. The first stage is then a deep but as yet vague faith that there is something Divine, something way beyond our normal understanding. Stage two involves one's first undeniable experiences. Stage three involves a realisation which permanently changes who one feels one is and how one looks at the reality. Stage four involves a complete transformation of one's nature.
Universal and personal, or situated knowledge
Finally, there is the difference between universal and personal or situated knowledge. They are not only different in their outer structure, but even in the type of consciousness they go with and their location in the subtle body.
- If one rises upwards in one's subtle body one can enter into "planes" or "worlds" of different types of truth. One could call them abstract but that would not do justice to what they are, because they have not been derived, secondarily, from physical facts. It is rather the other way around: they are the original truths that have created the physical world and they are in their own way older, more concrete and more "real" than the physical reality. If one pursues this quest far enough, one rises beyond the Universal into the Transcendent, the Absolute beyond all name and form.
- An entirely different type of knowledge is arrived at by going inside: here one finds situated knowledge, often in a more personal context, as if coming from an "inner oracle" that helps one to do, non-egoically, what is needed in the specific situation one finds oneself in. If one pursues it far enough, one finds here not so much the cosmic or transcendent Divine, but the Divine as person, having a distinct individual personality.
We'll come back to this distinction in the chapter on self-development.[INTERNAL LINK]